Books and reading,  History

An enchanting Western (no, not an oxymoron): ‘News of the World’ by Paulette Jiles

In the same way that I am not a fan of action/adventure novels and movies, I am not a fan of the American Western. However… this novel by Texan author Paulette Giles is proof that a beautifully written story is a beautifully written story, no matter the genre. First published in 2016, Harper Collins is releasing a movie tie-in version as the film adaptation is set for release in December 2020.

The story begins in 1870, just a few years after the end of the American Civil War. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a veteran of that conflict in the Confederate Army, has accepted a contract to travel from Wichita Falls to a settlement near San Antonio, Texas. His task is to return a ten-year-old girl, Johanna, to an aunt and uncle there. Johanna is an orphan whose parents and sister were killed in a raid by people from the Kiowa nation. She was taken in by the tribe and raised as a Kiowa child for four years and has just been ‘rescued’ by the US Army so she can be returned to members of her birth family.

The catch is that Johanna, as was the case for other child captives brought up in Native American communities, has little or no memory of her earlier life, no longer remembers her first language, and thinks and acts as a Kiowa girl.

On top of this, the route to rejoin her relatives is across four hundred miles of the ‘wild west’ in which there are many threats, including from Comanche or Kiowa but also from unscrupulous whites looking for an opportunity to rob or abuse. Captain Kidd feels every one of his seventy-some years as together, he and Johanna make the long journey in a rickety wagon pulled by Pasha, his horse.

The Captain is accustomed to a somewhat itinerant life because he makes his living travelling from town to town, where he holds ‘readings’ of the news of the day from a range of national and overseas newspapers, charging ten cents for admission. It seems an odd sort of occupation until we remember that literacy levels were lower at that time and that these were small, relatively isolated settlements where news from the wider world rarely intruded. The Captain finds that people are willing to pay a dime to hear his readings:

The audience sat rapt, listening…all were jointly amazed by information that had come across the Atlantic to them, here in North Texas, to their town alongside the flooding Red River. They had no idea how it had got there, through what strange lands it had traveled, who had carried it.

News of the World p60

The news aspect is a wonderful device by which the author weaves political and economic concerns of the time and place into the story. This is the American South during post war Reconstruction and there was a lot going on; even along the isolated roads and in tiny settlements, the Captain and Johanna meet people who debate the issues of the day. The Captain has plenty of time to reflect on all of this as the journey progresses:

Maybe life is just carrying news..Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end must be handed over, sealed.

News of the World p121

This is a slim novel that packs a lot into its 209 pages. By far the most delightful surprise is the relationship that develops between Johanna and Captain Kidd. What begins as a task the Captain has been paid to do, develops into a tender, warm and caring friendship between an unlikely pair. There are moments of danger, doubt and trouble along with humour and affection. It is truly an enchanting read and I look forward to seeing the movie adaptation (starring Tom Hanks) on its Australian release.

News of the World (movie tie-in) will be published in Australia by Harper Collins in January 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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